News of the rabbi who taught a radical redemption was spreading well beyond the religious community. The common people followed him in hoards, hoping to hear his healing teaching – or even experience the touch of his hand.
Jesus made his way through Jericho – the place Joshua and the people of Israel saw the city’s walls of self-protection fall down, making way for a new kingdom. It had been the home of King David’s great grandmother, the
whore restored, Rahab.
The crowd pressed in as Jesus walked along the road, hanging on his every word.
The region’s most notorious traitor – Zacchaeus – hurried along trying to break through the crowd to catch a peek at this problematic prophet. It was rumored Jesus encouraged his followers to live lives tilted toward grace, not judgment; reconciliation, not separation; radical hospitality, not exclusion.
Some said he had even restored sight to those who were blind.
As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus acquired from his neighbors the heavy tax imposed by the Roman occupiers on the Jewish people. His reputation within Jewish circles was damning – but the pay from the empire for his extortion was incredible.
In spite of his reward, Zacchaeus was wounded by the looks of disdain and disgust he received each time he was around his people. He often heard whispers behind his back – stinging words. Cursing his name. Wishing him dead.
Zacchaeus often masked the pain with anger, resulting in heated arguments and hateful words. There was a constant tension, an ‘edge’ in every interaction. This time was no different.
As he tried to penetrate the mass of those gathered to follow Jesus, he found himself blockaded by a human wall. Almost instinctively, the group closed the gaps he could sneak through – some even locking arms in an effort of partiality.
‘You’re the last person who deserves to see him, you financial whore.’
Unable to see over the gathering, Zacchaeus left the road and ran ahead to where he knew Jesus was going, about a mile up the only road leading out of town.
Exhausted and out of breath, he climbed a large sycamore tree near the side of the road.
He was desperate to catch a glimpse of grace incarnate.
When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up – his grace-giving eyes met those of Zacchaeus.
‘Come down from there, my friend. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.’
Everyone who saw this was indignant, and grumbled to one another. ‘What right does Jesus have to eat, associate and stay with him? He’s a sinner.’
Hurrying down, Zacchaeus accepted the imposition of God and opened his home to the teacher.
But the accusations kept coming.
‘He’s still a tax collector! He’s not really one of us! He still works with and for them!’ ‘He’s impure by the very nature of his work – dealing with gentiles! He is a sinner – you shouldn’t be here, Jesus.’
Zacchaeus defended himself to Jesus, stammering apologetically. ‘I give half of what I earn to the poor – and whenever I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages to make up for it.’
The words sounded hollow, even to Zacchaeus.
The crowd that had gathered outside expected Jesus to condemn him, a vindication of their intolerance.
‘Today salvation is in this home!’ Jesus put his arm around the host. ‘This is Zacchaeus, and he’s just like all of us! A son of Abraham! I came to find and restore that which was lost, not condemn it.’
The crowd stood in disbelief, absorbing the irony. ‘Zacchaeus’ is translated, ‘pure.’
This is pure – and he’s just like us.
Jesus again had surprised everyone in his response of grace, forgiveness and hope. His commitment to solidarity with all people was leading to some interesting conclusions.
All of the people were hanging on his every word – and expectation of the coming kingdom had never been higher.
What they failed to realize is it was already here.
Michael Kimpan is the author of the WayWard follower blog, a site designed to inspire thoughtful conversation and movement among followers of Jesus Christ. Michael works with The Marin Foundation in Chicago, a non-profit organization which works to build bridges between the LGBT community and the Church.